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Maladjusted Body Image

December 22, 2010

It started in sixth grade.

My best friend at the time had an obsession with stomachs that seemed to be contagious. When I slept over her house, we’d compare them, lament their girth. We noticed that in the morning, they were flat, our hipbones protruding. If we lay on our backs, we observed how they disappeared, how fine and perfect we could look if we chose never to stand up.

In eighth grade, my friends and I analyzed the calorie and fat content in every box of the kitchen cabinet.

In high school, I stared at girls’ stomachs as though we were in a silent contest. Usually, I was losing. I wanted my jeans to be pressed tight against a taut abdomen, hips creating the sharp outward edges of a nonexistent belly. And because they didn’t, because there was always a soft pouch beneath my button, my body was my enemy. Sometimes, I imagined what it would be like to cut off the soft flab of my stomach, to let loose the extra skin which seemed to causing me so much misery.

I believe I was a size 2.

It is disconcerting how young I was—how young most girls are—when I started to feel separate from my body. While I wasn’t anorexic, while I didn’t binge and purge, while I never physically hurt myself, the number on the scale was a sign of my worth. My body was a thick costume, an ill-fitting cloak, rather than something remarkable to inhabit. It was the object that received the brunt of my anger and blame. As I realize now, it was the place to direct my anxieties.

In college, I ate to escape the stresses of challenging studies and activities. With friends, I ordered cheesesteaks at midnight to ignore loneliness and fear. In an environment with all women, like my college was, we were not afraid of our appetites. We were like the women of Renoir’s paintings, large and curvy, unashamed of our figures. (Except we were.) And at least our new awareness of societal norms meant we had a place to direct some of our anger: not just at ourselves, but the culture that fed this unfair standard of beauty. Even if we felt ugly and fat, we still felt liberated. A little.

Why do women do this to their bodies? Why did I target so much negative energy toward mine?

As I got older and started exercising and wanting to eat better, rather than just doing it to fit into an ideal body type, I began to feel better about my body. I do not mean to say I’ve fully recovered. Most days, I try not to look at it. But yoga, pregnancy and childbirth, breastfeeding, my physical ability to care for my children and still move relatively comfortably has made me aware, at least intellectually, that my body is an amazing life force. Look at what it’s capable of!

A couple of months ago, the Twittosphere was chirping with comments about the latest GQ spread with the hit stars of Glee. For years now, I have avoided the covers of popular women’s and men’s magazines, which always picture half-naked women with inviting and mysterious tiger eyes.When I sought out the GQ cover for a discussion I was planning in my English class, I was shocked that nothing had changed.

Do you need to throw up? Go ahead, I’ll give you a moment.

Cory Monteith, the actor who plays Finn, is surrounded by groping made-up sex kittens, rather than intelligent actresses. Inside the issue, he plays drums and has good old jock fun while Lea Michelle, arguably the star of the show, poses with legs spread, a lollipop in her open mouth. Her booming voice and acting talent are trumped by her underwear. Of course.

No wonder women hate their bodies. They aren’t ours. They’re mirages in someone else’s warped fantasy.

In the late Caroline Knapp’s essay, “Add Cake, Subtract Self-Esteem” (Appetites 2003), she describes women’s discontent with their bodies as part of the feminist backlash. “At a time when increasing numbers of women were demanding the right to take up more space in the world, it is no surprise that they’d be hit with the opposite message from a culture that was (and still is) both male-dominated and deeply committed to its traditional power structures. Women get psychically larger, and they’re told to grow physically smaller. Women begin to play active roles in realms once dominated by men (schools, universities, athletic fields, the workplace, the bedroom), and they’re countered with images of femininity that infantilize them, render them passive and frail and non-threatening.” According to Knapp, women’s fear of their own appetite is a result of society’s message: “Don’t get too hungry, don’t overstep your bounds.”

I think it’s time we started talking about our bodies, loving them as they are, fully inhabiting them.

For the next Maladjusted Book Club pick, we will be discussing the following texts: Geneen Roth’s Women, Food and God; and Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness. Read one, read both, or read bits of either. No matter what, you will still be able to participate in an important and very relevant discussion.

Geneen Roth’s Women, Food, and God

Each page of Roth’s book is a meditation on what it means to inhabit your body, appreciate it, respect it rather than mentally and spiritually defile it with anger and self-loathing. Roth is not specific about God–God is whatever you believe her to be, a “luminous presence” rather than the traditional deity. (See? Mine is a “she.”)

Here are a couple of gems that might entice you to dive into this fantastic book:

“If you wait until you have Toni Oliver’s eyes and Amy Breyer’s hair, if you wait to respect yourself until you are at the weight you imagine you need to be to respect yourself, you will never respect yourself, because the message you will be giving yourself as you reach your goal is that you are damaged and cannot trust your impulses, your longings, your dreams, your essence at any weight.”

Roth stresses that rather than numbing our feelings when it comes to food and eating (and anything else), we face them, question them, fully experience them:

“Because when you evoke curiosity and openness with a lack of judgment, you align yourself with beauty and delight and love—for their own sake. You become the benevolence of God in action.” (106)

She also stresses the importance of focusing on our bellies, that area that for so long, I know I have avoided. And yet, it is the center of all of us. According to Roth, “When you ignore your belly, you become homeless. You spend your life trying to erase your own existence. Apologizing for yourself. Feeling like a ghost.” (113)

I’m warning you, this book is amazing.

Portia de Rossi’s Unbearable Lightness

De Rossi writes with candor and honesty about her struggles with anorexia. It’s a shock to read about her pain and self-doubt, because from the time she first appeared on the Ally McBeal show, she was so clearly beautiful. How could a woman who looked so self-assured and stunning feel so helpless and grotesque?

I have not yet finished Unbearable Lightness, but it’s a gripping read about what most women in Hollywood struggle with—the size of their bodies, the focus on appearance rather than talent. And isn’t it about time that women in this industry spoke up?

So come one, come all, to the Maladjusted Symposium on Body Image starting Monday, February 7th.

Are you in?

 

Feature image: “Lies Stomach” by PitsLamp Photography via Flickr using a Creative Commons license.
Image: “Glee Gone Wild” from GQ’s November issue. Please send hate mail promptly to Terry Richardson, objectifier extraordinaire.
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